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Climate refugees

Interview by Tamsin WalkerJune 24, 2015

A major exhibition in northern England is aiming to make the complexities of climate refugees tangible. Curator Kooj Chuhan talks to DW about inequality, smoking guns, and the Western comfort zone.

A windswept shack on a patch of grass surrounded by water
Image: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

What motivated you to put on such an expansive exhibition relating to the issue of climate refugees, which is not something at the forefront of general public consciousness?

The deeper reason for doing it came from about 30 years of being a community artist and working around themes of race, which means issues to do with global justice and inequality between north and south. For the last eight years, I have also been working on climate justice, which I imagine is a term most people don't really understand.

Can you elaborate?

It's generally used to look at the inequality between north and south as a result of climate. It is usually termed as the people who have contributed least to CO2 emissions that cause global warming are the ones facing the greatest wrath of its effects. And they are predicted to face it to a considerably greater degree in the future.

That aspect of climate change is very central to the industrial system, to over-consumption, over-production and the myth of continual growth, and was created out of the colonial system. I think that kind of narrative is more or less absent from expressions and dialogue and discussions around issues to do with race and global justice, or within the environmental movement.

Do you believe there is a general understanding of the concept of climate refugees?

Unlike political refugees, people tend to move a very short distance away from where intensive environmental change takes place. The way what's known as slow-onset deterioration of the environment affects migration is poorly understood. It is harder to understand because it takes place over a period of time, although that may be a more significant effect.

If you take somewhere like Bangladesh, where there used to be a serious flood every 20 years, it's now maybe every four years. So while people might once have moved a certain way away and then moved back, that's becoming tougher. Although people are not going to leave the country, increasingly, they can't move back.

How do you feel about the term climate refugee?

For a while people were calling it climate-induced migration. The last academic workshop I went to, there was a strong feeling that we have to go back to using the term "climate refugees" because otherwise we are watering the entire set of issues down. People are refugees and they need to be recognized as such.

This problem looks set to get worse before it gets better - how important is public awareness?

Climate change is dogged by people trying to find a smoking gun for environmental change. It's very difficult for people to feel that this is real, because even when things happen now, nobody is going to say 'look, that's climate change. I'm pointing my finger at it'. When a problem occurs, nobody wants to say climate is the cause.

That's climate change generally, but with migration we have this feeling we're used to migrants - especially at the moment. People see this migration as largely political, or to do with conflict, or destabilization and that people are hungry and have no future at home. They see that going on, but to say there's something else, something relatively indirect that's going to make things worse, is conceptually difficult. But the scale of this enormous. If you think of environmental degradation of any kind, the first impact is that people won't be able to eat easily, or at all, in certain areas, so they will have to move.

Do you think art can help to open people's eyes to the seriousness of the problem?

The role of art is to try and humanize what can otherwise become statistical endeavors. My big challenge is to make the issue tangible. In our media-saturated world, people are saying 'if you're not on the Internet, you don't exist.' That is one of the difficulties in creating an audio-visual language that says, 'this is real, this is going on, this is happening to people like me and you. They're not those weird others we normally try and ignore, or to take a deep breath and then carry on with the washing up.'

I think documentary filmmakers are really important, but there is a kind of formula to how they tend to film people in poor countries, and you have this unarticulated feeling of 'here we go again, it's another one of those images somewhere in the world. If it's not conflict, it'll be another disaster of some kind.'

Kooj Chuhan
Kooj Chuhan is committed to highlighting the issue of climate refugeesImage: Kooj Chuhan
A bicycle hangs on the back of a boat that is coming into land
One consequence of climate change is flooding in many parts of the worldImage: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
A collage of climate change related images
The exhibition aims to make the idea of climate-induced migration more accessibleImage: Kooj Chuhan

One piece of work, called The Level, by Iranian artist, Mazaher, uses verbatim dialogue from a report by the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition. He has actors express the dialogue as if it were happening to them, and intercuts it with footage from flooding in different parts of the world. It plays with your senses in a very jarring way. It pulls people out of the comfort zone they are in even when watching disasters and difficult narratives.

Kooj Chuhan, who is curator of the #link:www.footprintmodulation.net :exhibition# entitled 'FOOTPRINT MODULATION: Art, global climate change and displacement', works as a filmmaker, digital media artist and creative producer. He has a particular interest in climate justice.